Disparities among Indigenous health

Four years ago, NAU did not offer culturally informed services and programs to help with health disparities among Indigenous people.

However, a collaboration between the Center for Health Equity Research and the Native American Research Center for Health was recently initiated. This collaboration has led to the formation of the Indigenous Health Track, a program that allows for a more culturally aware approach to medical services for Indigenous people.

The Indigenous Health Track is for students looking for medical assistance, as well as students looking to apply for jobs within the medical field.

Students graduate from the Indigenous Health Track with the ability to plan, implement and assess public health programs while also considering the cultures of the tribal communities they serve.

Sarah Chatter, a peer mentor at the Office of Indigenous Student Success, said there are many differences between Westernized health and Indigenous health practices.

“Westernized health tends to take a more standardized approach and everything tends to be linear; with Indigenous health everything is interrelated,” Chatter said.

Adam Rindfleisch is the medical director of integrative health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Unlike conventional Western medicine, a person is able to get to the root causes of health issues by using methods such as therapy and meditation, Rindfleisch said. The Indigenous Health Track not only focuses on the physical needs of a person, but also on their mental, emotional and spiritual health. 

“Everything is interrelated: Your mind, your body, your spirit, your environment. It’s not just a one and done fix-all approach,” Chatter said. “If one thing changes, everything changes, everything is out of balance and until you find ways to rectify that to be in line, then everything will be out of whack.”

This type of care allows for multiple issues to be improved, but also eliminates most of the stress that comes with looking for a diagnosis and solution. 

Many Americans are dissatisfied with their health care and believe there is a lack of communication with doctors. These communication issues lead to further mistrust from minorities. It is common for minorities to receive a lower standard of care than non-minorities. 

Due to generational distrust in medical systems, Indigenous community members can suffer from poor health and a lower life expectancy. 

Vernandria Livingston, a peer mentor at the Office of Indigenous Student Success, moved to Flagstaff from a reservation in New Mexico.

“I think one of the biggest issues that being here at NAU has taught me is just how sparse or rare mental health accessibility is, virtually nonexistent on the rez [reservation] or back home,” Livingston said. “It’s better here because we have counseling services, and other resources, but back home we have probably one therapist.”

The Native American population in Flagstaff is about 12 times the national average due to the proximity to multiple Native American reservations. 

There are over 5,500 people of Navajo ancestry in Flagstaff. Due to this, more programs are necessary for Indigenous people to receive assistance with their health.

It takes time for these programs to be created and put into practice within the community. Most communities have data sovereignty, meaning that any data conducted on Native American land belongs to the tribe. 

However, there have been instances where researchers conducted other experiments without consent. This leads to further mistrust toward health organizations, leading Indigenous communities to be hesitant to work alongside them.

Chatter said the most important part of these types of programs are finding ways to be respectful, and not creating these programs for an individual’s personal gain.

“I think it would be effective for public health workers changing the barriers to not be so heightened, that way Indigenous people get the help that they need to change their health for the better,” Chatter said.

“All the history that have impacted Indigenous health like unethical research, forced sterilization of Indigenous women, boarding schools, loss of language and culture. Through the Indigenous Health Track, I think people learn about these and they find ways to not only address those atrocities in history, but they do so in a respectful manner that Indigenous people still are willing to accept the help that they need from that standpoint,” Chatter said.

Throughout history, Indigenous groups have been the subjects of inhumane practices, such as the forced sterilization of over 3,000 Native American women.

“It takes awhile for Indigenous communities to rebuild that trust with these higher organizations,” Chatter said. “One thing that we really do need is more Indigenous researchers and Indigenous led organizations to help these communities. Also, just acceptance from Western society [because] it’s such a foreign way of thinking.”

Given increased availability of Indigenous-based programs, a holistic approach to medicine is beginning to become normalized among Western society. This is also due to the issues Americans have seen with modern medicine; this often results in individuals seeking alternative healing methods. There is not one way to practice health care, and Western medicine does not always succeed.

Various philosophers have narrowed down what they view as the true issue in Western medicine: The separation of the body and the soul. This is why holistic methods are becoming increasingly popular — people are trying to become whole again.

“The impact of colonization and Indigenous spirituality, cultural beliefs, those all impact Indigenous people and that’s something that Westernized health doesn’t recognize,” Chatter said. “Those are the greatest differences between Indigenous health and regular health.”

The cultural aspect allows everyone involved in the program to truly learn the history and rituals of Indigenous people through hands-on experience. 

“We’re not really connected to our roots, so I think this would also be a way that we reconnect to medicinal ceremonies and practices,” Livingston said. “I think we have leaned a little bit on Western medicine. There’s a lot of cultural knowledge out there that we don’t know about that we could definitely bring back in.”

Livingston said that it would also be culturally responsive, especially for the elders. It can be difficult to explain medical terms with a communication barrier.

The disparities among Indigenous people goes beyond requiring health care that respects their culture and traditions. It is important that individuals of all ages are considered with these types of programs so their specific needs can be met.

While every Indigenous individual has a different experience with medical care, the normalization of holistic practices will allow awareness to spread in health care circles.

“It would probably bring them back to what they already know too, so I think that’s very impactful for those Indigenous people that are already cultural and already traditional, it will normalize what they already know,” Livingston said. “Just for Indigenous people like me, really connecting.”

The basis of the Indigenous Health Track is to spread information about the types of care that will be beneficial toward Indigenous people. Individuals such as Chatter and Livingston hope the holistic health methods will allow for people to once again connect their body with their spirit.

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